In 2004 my teenage brain was blown apart by a Bolter shot to the skull. Not only was I discovering the crazy world of girls and hormones, but Relic Entertainment had just released one of the greatest RTS games ever. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War brought the daunting table-top game to PC in spectacular fashion, introducing a whole new generation to the Space Marines, the WAAAAAAAAAAGH! loving Orks, the silky voice of the forces of Chaos and the mysterious Eldar. And best of all? It’s so much cheaper than the bloody tabletop game. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we, and see how Dawn of War holds up in 2021.
Naturally, we start with the core Dawn of War game before delving into the three standalone expansion packs that were also launched. The singleplayer story follows the Blood Ravens chapter of the mighty Space Marines as they and their leader, Angelos, land on the planet Tartarus with the aim to eradicate the Orks that have set up shop there. However, it’s really the forces of Chaos that are behind it all, and before long the Eldar end up jumbled into the narrative as well.
It ain’t going to win any awards for storytelling genius, but Dawn of War’s campaign does feature a cast of surprisingly good characters that are brought to life through really strong voice acting, especially for an RTS. Even the units you command get a surprising amount of dialogue, all delivered with gusto. Their comments, yells and replies are seared into my brain now from years of listening to them: “First here, then there. Make up yer mind already!”
For me, what made the Dawn of War series work is how it handles resources. There’s just two and both are infinite. Power is easily created by building generators and is need for a lot of the late-game stuff, but Requisition is only earned by taking and holding Strategic Points across the map. This instantly pushes you toward being aggressive in your tactics, because if you let the enemy dominate the map they’ll gain a massive economic advantage, letting them pummel you into the ground through sheer numbers. Yeah, sure, through smart tactical thinking you can maybe claw your way back into the fight, but it’s going to be a challenge when your enemy is busying building squads and tanks faster than a Chinese sweat-shop. And if match goes on too long, Strategic Points start to decay into nothingness.
I love this system, which is surprising because when I play something like Supreme Commander I’m the person who loves to turtle up and spend the entire game building heaps of artillery and laughing while everyone smashes into my defenses. Dawn of War’s system shoves me out of my base and forces me to take and hold parts of the map or risk getting overrun. It suits the grimy, violent Warhammer 40k license perfect where hiding behind a bunch of walls wouldn’t really feel right.
Likewise matches where you had to capture and hold Critical Points in order to win make the game feel fast and action-packed. Waiting around to build up a massive blob of units can be a viable tactic, but for the most part you need to get your arse in gear and get out onto the map, otherwise the enemy will hold all the points.
Base building is also kept fairly streamlined, again encouraging you to keep your focus on the rest of the map. There’s a couple of buildings to pop down per faction and they almost always need to be placed within range of your existing base. Although forward bases can be built if you happen to have quite a lot of resources to spare.
With base building kept simple and hotkeys enabling you to quickly train new units and research upgrades you can keep your eye on the actual battles. That’s vital because not only do you need to manage what your armies are targeting so they can be most effective, but there’s also loads you can do with the units themselves. Squads of soldiers can typically be reinforced with more members for a cost in the field, and you can outfit them with different weaponry. A squad of Space Marines, for example, can be customized with flamethrowers, heavy Bolters, Plasma Pistols and rocket launchers, as well as a Sergeant. There’s also special abilities to consider, such as grenades or, in the case of the powerful leaders, things like psychic storms and rallying cries.
It’s a great balance of micro and macro. There’s not enough abilities and things to feel overwhelming in the middle of a heated fight, but there’s enough going on that a clever player can decimate an enemy who has superior numbers but isn’t paying attention.
Each squad and vehicle obviously has a health bar that indicates how much damage it can take before inconveniently dying, but they also have Morale bars which show much shit they’ll put up before taking their ball and going home. Every unit has different levels of Morale and the various weapons, squads, leaders and vehicles deal different amounts of Morale damage. Once the bar is empty the unit suffers penalties to its damage, defense and accuracy, turning them into heavily armoured sitting ducks. They do get a boost to their speed, though, so if you spot Morale breaking you can jump in and order your unit out of the action before its reduced to a gross smear on the ground
Throughout all of Dawn of War you can see the foundations for Relic’s next big game. The idea of taking and holding points on the map and the rudimentary cover would both be expanded upon in the amazing Company of Heroes, and it’s interesting to look back and see the evolution. Unit morale became even more vital to the action, too, including a handy button that sends squads scuttling back to base.
Without a doubt, the Orks are my favourite faction, mostly because they are idiots. Somehow in the 40th century this green-skinned idiots have figured out space travel despite being dumber than a potato painted green. Their battle plans amount to rushing the enemy and hitting stuff, and lots of dakka. They are a race of morons so idiotic, so stupid that they believe painting things red makes them go faster. And somehow they believe this fact so hard that the universe itself appears to have given up fighting them and agreed that, yes, painting stuff red makes it go faster.
The trick to playing the Orks is that unlike the other races their technological advancement is based entirely on how many Orks there are. The more shouting, yelling, angry Orks you have the better the stuff you can build. But to get more Orks you need more WAAAAAAAGH! and to get that you need to build special towers all over the place.
The Space Marines are my second favourite, and the faction I favour most when jumping back into the game after a prolonged absence. They are the most balanced of the factions and easiest for newer players to get to grips with. They have a good balance of unit types, and access to some awesome vehicles in the form of the stomping Dreadnaughts and the Predator tanks. Their biggest skill comes later in the game, allowing them to literally drop units in from the sky. Nothing is more annoying than thinking you have a battle won, only for the Space Marines to sudden deploy a few squads of Marines and a Dreadnought right behind you.
The Eldar are the least capable when it comes to a straight punch-up, but that’s because they prefer hit and run tactics. They’re fast and can build special Webway gets that let them teleport around the map. They’re the faction I play the least, but a skilled commander can be devastating.
Finally, Chaos are a bit of everything, and get one of the coolest vehicles in the game in the form of the Defiler which spews flames. High damage output is the name of the game for Chaos, along with the ability to summon an actual freaking Demon.
On top of your regular troops and vehicles your faction also has access to powerful commanders that stride across the battlefield. They’re typically capable of taking on a few squads by themselves or offer up kickass abilities, like Psychic Storms or, in the case of the Dark Crusade expansion, literally raising the dead. They can be kept apart or attached to squads for extra buffs. And each faction’s various leaders feel unique and interesting.
The action is kept surprisingly small-scale. At most your army will boast a handful of squads and a few vehicles. Even the green-tide of the Orks is actually fairly small overall. And yet that smaller scale makes all the action manageable in a way it wouldn’t be with more units cluttering the screen. It lets you get involved by issuing specific commands, triggering abilities and generally trying to get the tactical edge.
I love that units have enough health and longevity that battles last a while, giving you the chance to turn the tide by bringing up the right unit for the job. I’ve had fights go on for ages as we both deploy new units, then units to counter than, and then counter-counter units. The hard-cap might keep battles small, but it also means can’t rely entirely on overwhelming firepower to achieve victory.
I also love how even the basic troops stay useful throughout the game. More advanced types of unit are often limited, stopping you from spamming the hell out of them. And other units are so specialised that your basic Space Marine squad or bunch of Choppa Boyz stay useful throughout the match. Plus, research also lets you upgrade them with things like more health, higher damage or more options for outfitting them.
It’s a brilliant RTS strategy, easily standing amongst the very best to have ever graced PC or console. But Relic didn’t stop there. No, they got to work on standalone expansion packs that could be played without the core Dawn of War game, so let’s jump into those, shall we?
The Expansion Packs
Relic Entertainment built on the success of Dawn of War by launching three expansion packs, kicking off with Winter Assault. This brought with it a whole new singleplayer campaign and a brand new race to play as: The Imperial Guard
The Imperial Guard are probably the most grounded feeling race in the game simply because they’re regular humans and have a fairly traditional military aesthetic. While the Space Marines are 7ft tall, genetically modified human fucking tanks wearing power armor, the Imperial Guard are just regular people who constantly find themselves fighting demons, hulking Orks and freaky aliens. Say what you like, but I reckon the Imperial Guard are the most impressive faction in the game simply because they show insane levels of bravery by going up against foes that are often physically much, much, MUUUUUUUUCH bigger than them. It’s honestly surprising the Imperial Guard manage to get anything done with those huge balls of steel weighing them down all the time.
In terms of gameplay, the Imperial Guard is all about desperately holding on for the first half of the game. The basic squad of Guardsmen will get decimated by every other faction in the game, so the Imperial Guard try to make up for this by having a -75% sale on all the time and hurling entire squads to their death. But if you can stay alive for a while the Imperial Guard get access to the best mechanized forces in the entire bloody game, including the mighty Leman Russ tank and my personal favourite; the Basilisk artillery. And with the right upgrades the basic Guardsmen suddenly become exceptionally good in the late-game.
The Imperial Guard also get some interesting leadership in the form of an entire squad of commanders. One of ’em is a priest with a chainsaw, so, you know…that’s a thing.
The campaign follows the same template as the base game: linear missions and cutscenes. But it did improve upon the writing, especially for the commanders of the various factions. While the core game focused almost entirely on the Blood Ravens, Winter Assault switches things up by having you swapping between the forces of order (Imperial Guard and the Eldar) and the forces of disorder (Chaos and Orks.) It can make the campaign feel more disjointed but it also helps bring extra variety to the missions, while an extra focus on scripted events lead to some epic moments.
Following up from the solid but safe Winter Assault was the outstanding Dark Crusade. This second expansion pack ditched the standard linear singleplayer in favour of some turn-based strategizing on a world map. Each turn you would move or attack different regions, taking you to a skirmish map where you would battle for control. Bases you built were permanent, which was important because the countless battles you fought could become a chore if you always have to build your base from scratch. Every territory taken increased your Requisition income, and in turn Requisition could be spent to garrison troops or purchase Honour guards for your commander. And different parts of the world map would grant very powerful benefits, making taking and holding them feel important.
You could also earn cool Wargear for your commander, adding permanents buffs to their abilities and making them look more badass in the process. Unlocking new gear always feels like a proper event, too, because it isn’t easy. The game doesn’t just shower you with stuff, and instead makes you work for it by conquering territory and wrecking the other factions.
The ultimate goal of the campaign is to assault and defeat the other faction’s base of operations one by one in epic missions. These were different from the standard campaign maps because they added in scripted events and typically had you trying to defend yourself from the very start against incoming waves of enemies, thus having a decent honour guard is vital. Secondary objectives had you tackling mini-bases to stem the tide of reinforcements constantly pestering your base, and destroying them provides a nice sense of progression.
While it was all quite basic, the extra layer of gameplay that this campaign added into the mix was excellent, helping keep Dawn of War feel fresh and interesting. And it showed Relic weren’t afraid to tinker with what made the game great.
Dark Crusade also brought two new factions to the game, starting with the implacable Necrons. These evil-looking metal bastards are slow to get going, quite literally as their movement speed could make an old Granny look like an Olympic level athlete. Although vulnerable in the early game, the Necrons can slowly become a nearly unstoppable force capable of soaking up punishment while steadily advancing. By the time they unlock the full power of their Monolith, essentially turning their base into a mobile death machine capable of pumping out units, the enemy might as well just give up and go home.
The Necrons brought some changes to core gameplay, too, by ditching Requisition. Instead, the Necrons use energy as their sole resource, while capturing points and building Obelisks on Requisition Points speeds up the training time of new units. Their basic Necron soldiers don’t cost anything, either, so players can pump out small, slow squads of soldiers for nothing and annoy the enemy via a constantly advancing trickle of death robots.
The second race weren’t quite as interesting, at least not in my own personal opinion. The Tau. There are people who love the Tau, but personally I’ve never clicked with them and still can’t play them to save my bloody life. Their gimmick was a tech tree choice that pushes them down either fielding more of their mercenary pals, or bringing out some bigger vehicles. Both sides can be chose, though, if you can get enough resources to pull it off.
Dark Crusade was a critical hit amongst just about everybody, so hopes were high for what would end up being the third and final expansion pack. However, Relic were busy with Company of Heroes and other projects so the bulk of development for Dawn of War: Soulstorm was handled by a different studio called Iron Lore who had the daunting task of stepping into Relic’s sizable blood-encrusted shoes. Soulstorm wound up being…okay, but it made some fundamental mistakes.
The campaign kept the design of Dark Crusade but tried to up the ante by setting it across multiple planets, although ship-to-ship combat wasn’t factored in. Instead you had to travel from planet to planet via special gates, bringing with it a whole horde of lore complaints from fans. Apart from that, the campaign was almost identical to Dark Crusade’s except Iron Forge opted to remove permanent bases, making the campaign drag as you fought through skirmish after skirmish. Happily there are mods which bring this feature back.
Another weird design choice was the U.I. which took up most of the screen for no reason and left the actual map occupying a tiny section of the screen. It was needlessly squashed and makes viewing the tactical situation a real pain in the arse. Even the models of each faction’s commander which showed where everyone was on the map got removed in favor of some boring icons, making the situation even harder to read at a glance.
The campaign also lacks the sharp dialogue of the main game and the previous two expansions. Compared to Dark Crusade, the various faction commanders feel more generic and forgettable. Territories also have less cool abilities. Still, you can deck out your commander with Wargear and slowly conquering every single faction is still fun, even though it’s never as good as Dark Crusade.
Soulstorm also introduced some new unit types in the form of aircraft, widely beloved to have been added because Games Workshop had just added them into the tabletop game and were pushing for them to be put into the videogame. Each faction got a single aircraft and it was immediately apparent they hadn’t gotten a lot of effort put into them. They get caught up in the terrain too easily and don’t add anything to the actual gameplay.
Soulstorm brought with it another two factions. The Dark Eldar looked like a BDSM club that’s gotten too caught up in its own roleplaying and accidentally wound up in an intergalactic war. They focus on early-game rushes and hit and run tactics, and struggle to go up against most other factions later on.
Meanwhile, the Sisters of Battle have one of the coolest aesthetics in the entire game, resembling a Church choir gone crazy. These religious zealots sit between the Space Marines and the Imperial Guard, and boast special Faith based powers that have their own resource. Naturally, people have a lot of different opinions on which factions are the best in the game, but the Sisters of Battle are almost always placed at the bottom of the list thanks to their core troops being weak across the board. They’re tricky to play as, but I do have a soft spot for them, mostly because their artillery tank looks like a church organ on wheels.
Soulstorm is widely regarded as the weakest of the expansion packs, which is a shame considering it was the last one released for Dawn of War. Regardless of its quality, though, Soulstorm brought the game up to a whopping nine factions across four different campaigns and a heap of skirmish maps. More importantly, in a modern context Soulstorm acts as the foundation for Dawn of War’s massive mod scene, upon which amazing work like Ultimate Apocalypse has been built. Fans have kept the series alive in their hearts by carrying on where Relic left off, introducing whole new factions and game modes.
Some Final Things
Personally, even if you want to play vanilla Dawn of War I’d still recommend downloading and installing a basic camera zoom mode because the standard view feels claustrophobic and awkward. Your HQ takes up most of the screen by itself, and it can be hard to get a real sense of battles when you can barely see more than two squads at a time. A more backed out camera lets you see the action far better.
By far the biggest issue I have with the games is the path finding. Ordering units around frequently results in them bumbling around like idiots, occasionally walking into walls and sometimes just going off in entirely the wrong direction. It can be a bit like trying to herd a bunch of Lemmings that have just come back from a depressing black and white movie away from a cliff.
Of course, nearly 17-years have passed since Dawn of War hit the market and graphics have radically improved since then. But I think the game’s art holds up very well, making this one of the better classic games to look at from a 2021 perspective. Plus, you’ll soon forget all about the graphics.
The Dawn of War name continued on, but it doesn’t feel like we ever get the true sequel we all hoped for. Dawn of War 2 completely switched the template, ditching the base-building in favour of something much more akin to an action-RPG. It’s great in its own right and has a deserved following of fans, but it was so radically different from the first game that it took me years to ever find the desire to play it. Meanwhile, the much newer Dawn of War 3 did follow the template of the first game more but also awkwardly mixed it with some Dawn of War 2 and MOBO elements. I still think it’s better than people give it credit for, and a decent game in its own right, but it didn’t feel like a proper sequel, either.
In fact, Dawn of War 3 failed so badly that Relic abandoned their plans for DLC and new factions, and didn’t update the core game very much. It means a Dawn of War 4 seems unlikely at this point, although in fairness Dawn of War 3 was already a surprise. Will Relic return to the franchise anytime soon? It’s difficult to tell. I remain hopeful, though, that after Age of Empires IV, Relic might choose to return the perpetual war of the 40k universe.
The argument can be made that Company of Heroes , which came out 2-years after Dawn of War, was the better game. I’d be hard pressed to argue against you – CoH was a superb RTS game and Relic built upon the foundations of Dawn of War in almost every way when they created it. However, for me nothing beats the Warhammer 40k aesthetic. Nothing beats watching the Space Marines battle the Ork hordes, or the Guardsmen going up against the forces of Chaos. To this day I’m still not a Warhammer fan in general, despite liking the aesthetic, but Relic helped me appreciate the crazy world of Warhammer and understand why so many people adore it.
Without a shred of doubt and in the name of the Emperor himself I can wholeheartedly recommend Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. Despite its age, it still plays brilliantly and the already amazing gameplay is reinforced by a wealth of mods that add more content and features. If you slapped a 2021 coat of paint on Dawn of War, I think most people wouldn’t realise it was actually made in 2004. It’s that damn good. Do yourself a favour and pick up the Master Collection which contains all the expansions. It’s more than worth the £30 asking price on Steam, although you can frequently find it on sale.